Craig Lewis, author of the Better Days Recovery Workbook tells what he learned from his extreme moments.
“I didn’t expect to be alive at this age.”
Bad Days: We’ve All Had Them
Addiction, mental health, trauma or relationship distress can eat away at you. How do you face these things and still be a good man?
“We’ve all had extreme moments.” Craig Lewis is calm and thoughtful. Listening to him, I found myself at a loss to put together his story with who he is today.
At 14 his parents took him from Doctor to Doctor, convinced he was out of touch with reality. They eventually found a Doctor who agreed and he was medicated and placed into a psychiatric hospital. He felt traumatized, rejected and angry.
Eventually the label “Schizophrenia” was given to him and he was put on doses of medications that made self-management impossible. As a youth, he cycled through group homes and hospitals. The experience left him estranged from family and friends, angry and unstable. His demeanor seemed to confirm the diagnosis, which kept the medications going for the next thirty years.
For years, his life was unmanageable, aimless and chaotic. He continued to take the medications but felt that it was the medications, not his mind, that were creating his instability.
Over time, Craig’s behavior matched his diagnosis. “I became sick.” He was in pain, felt worthless, uncertain and misunderstood.
During all of his turmoil, the one place that he found acceptance was in Punk Rock. Despite the dysfunction, the community embraced him. Today he continues to sing in a Punk band and he attributes music with saving his life.
Last year his Psychiatrist advised that the medications, not his mind, were making him sick. For Craig, the system got it wrong. In thirty years, he was put on over forty different medications for various reasons, and for different lengths of time. There are no blood tests for Psychiatric disorders, so most psychiatric medications are trials to see if they work and to see how well you can manage the side effects.
Under Doctors orders, Craig has been off all medications since May of 2015. All of the medications he was on have made a mess of his mind: His life is the side effect.
Craig’s story is about extreme moments. We’ve all had moments where we face rejection, pain, labels, isolation, or abandonment. These are moments that you wish you could erase. Craig admits that he did not manage it well.
In 2004 Craig reached a low point, underemployed and desperate. He sought help from a local employment center. There, he enrolled in a program that supported his desire for a better life. He was sponsored to attend school which led to him becoming a Certified Peer Specialist.
He credits this program for giving him a new start, “This was the beginning of the rest of my life.”
As a Peer Specialist, he was required to complete a practicum by providing direct service to people facing their own extreme moments. Craig decided to use his life experience to help others improve their lives. He developed a group and each week they discussed questions that made them look their decisions, not their diagnosis.
“These cuts and bruises are temporary. They will not always hurt and they will heal.” Craig Lewis
The experience changed him. He began to realize that he was capable of far more than he ever believed. He poured his energy into his work, developing more and more material for his groups. Over time, themes emerged and he discovered what worked.
You Can Have Better Days
Craig knew that he had something that people found helpful, but he wasn’t sure what he could do with it. Eventually he decided to put what he knows into a book, Better Days: A Mental Health Recovery Workbook.
I received my own copy of the book with excitement. The topics are not sequential and can be done in any order. The questions are straightforward, but honestly they were a challenge because it takes work to think deeply about your life. But that is exactly the point.
Each of the 36 chapters has a brief reflection, space for notes and three questions. Chapters that I found compelling included “We Can’t Control Everything,” “Recovery Planning,” “Working Through Pain,” and “Living the Life You Want to Live.”
In the “Working Through Pain” chapter, he asks the reader to consider these questions:
- In what ways can people support you to help you when you are suffering?
- When you’re feeling overwhelmed, what are two healthy things you can do to help yourself feel better?
- What is one thing that you have done this week that you struggled with yet succeeded at accomplishing?
I breezed through the first two questions. The third one stopped me. When I am in pain, I am IN PAIN. It’s difficult to see through the pain and be honest about my current capabilities, strengths and successes. His question changed how I thought about myself and my pain.
Craig says that becoming an author changed his life, but it seems to me that it was his response to his extreme moments that changed him. Craig’s story is one of believing in yourself, believing that you are capable of more and that you can have your own better days.
Craig bases his material on the Socratic method, using questions to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas.
- Begin with a question. Often you and I sell ourselves short. Questions draw on what you know rather than what Google knows: Your personal knowledge and experience.
- Write your thoughts – Writing gets your thoughts out of your head. Writing helps you to literally see how you are thinking and that can change your mind and your perspective.
- Be honest, you are accountable to yourself. Don’t compare yourself with another person. “Our society is a society of comparison,” he says. Be accountable to yourself by being honest about your weaknesses and your strengths.
- Your life experience is your responsibility. Let go of the blame, the put downs and your focus on failure. You have choices you can make to improve your life. Usually the choices are not complicated, they are just hard work. Craig’s workbook will help you identify what you need to do next.
- Use your own stories – Seeing how you have improved will inspire further change. Your strengths are really your possibilities, your own better days. They are your gifts.
Today, he does not believe in mental illness. He talks about how your experiences impact you, and often what we term mental illness is simply a reasonable response to unreasonable, extreme experiences. I think his point is that labels can change your life if you let them define who you are.
Life will throw extreme moments your way and Craig continues to face life, head on. He still uses his method to maintain and build on the changes that he began more than ten years ago. Craig says that he did not expect to be alive at this age. It is his work with other people that keeps him alive.
“It was jump or stay down, those were my options… I admit I have jumped repeatedly in the past couple years with no idea of what I was doing or how to do it. These were my only chances of discovering and creating a life of happiness, success and satisfaction.”
Keep it Real
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Photos by Craig Lewis